The British Expedition to Abyssinia was a rescue mission and punitive expedition carried out in 1868 by British imperial forces against the Ethiopian Empire for imprisoning British subjects. The images are mostly from the Illustrated London News, which were probably made by artists who had not travelled with the expedition, to inform the British public.
Below are a series of articles I have written before, about the expedition and the sad fate of the emperor’s son.
Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia, imprisoned several missionaries and two representatives of the British government in an attempt to force the British government to comply with his requests for military assistance. Britain attempted to reason with the emperor, but he was not moved. In the end they sent in the troops.
The British required the transportation of a sizable military force hundreds of miles across mountainous terrain lacking any road system. The task was given to the British army in India – technically the Bombay Army.
The force consisted of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, 26,000 camp followers and over 40,000 animals, including elephants.
The British pushed inland – finally confronting the emperor in his citadel.
The Battle of Magdala was fought in April 1868 between British and Abyssinian forces at Magdala, 390 miles (630 km) from the Red Sea coast, which at that time was the capital city of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).
The formidable obstacles to the action were overcome by the commander of the expedition, General Sir Robert Napier, who was victorious in every battle against the troops of Tewodros, capturing the Ethiopian citadel, Magdala, and rescued all the hostages.
The expedition was widely hailed on its return for achieving all its objectives.
The Consul and the missionaries who had been held hostage were freed and travelled back to the UK.
The fate of Emperor Tewodros was perhaps predictable: he committed suicide with a pistol apparently given to him by Queen Victoria as a gift.
The emperor left behind a son, Prince Alemayehu, who was taken back to Britain, presented to Queen Victoria, and educated at an English public school.
Sadly the prince died young and is buried in Windsor Castle.
When Prince Alamayu died of pleurisy at aged 18, Queen Victoria was deeply upset, remarking:
Very grieved & shocked to hear by telegram, that good Alamayou had passed away this morning. It is too sad! All alone, in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him […] Everyone is sorry
QUEEN VICTORIA, JOURNAL, 14 NOVEMBER 1879
The British invasion of Ethiopia, 1867 – 1868
I have just bought this photograph of a British camp inside ‘Abyssinia’ from the expedition to free certain captives being held by Emperor Tewodros II.
The background to this photograph and the expedition was the capture of a missionary – Henry Stern – who had inadvertently insulted the emperor by suggesting he was of humble birth.
The British consul, Charles Cameron, interceded on Stern’s behalf and was promptly arrested and put in chains. Others were arrested, including an Assyrian, Hormudz Rassam, who had been sent to try to free the captives.
That was enough. Britain despatched an entire army, under Sir Robert Napier to ensure their freedom and the punishment of the emperor.
They landed on the Eritrean close, South of Massawa. The force consisted of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, 26,000 camp followers and over 40,000 animals, including the elephants. The force set sail from Bombay in upwards of 280 steam and sailing ships.
The story of the expedition can be read here.
In the end the emperor’s fortress at Magdala was captured, Thedros committed suicide and the captives were freed.
The British – their task accomplished – left, taking with them a vast hoard of treasure, including ancient manuscripts.
A few – including the imperial crown were returned. King George V gave it to the Emperor Haile Selassie during the imperial visit to Britain in 1925.
The Imperial War Museum in London has some other photographs from the expedition, including this one below.
This is entitled: “The Baluch Regiment parade in camp. Abyssinia. Photograph by 10th Company , R.B.” Catologue number: Q 69868
The sad story of an Ethiopian prince, taken to England, only to die young
This is a photograph of a sad little boy, who was taken from his family, brought to England, only to die as a youth.
The boy in question was Dejazmatch Alemayehu Tewodros, often referred to as HIH Prince Alemayehu or Alamayou of Ethiopia (23 April 1861 – 14 November 1879) who was the son of Emperor Tewodros II.
This carte de visite – which I have just bought – was produced by The London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company of 54 Cheapside and 110 & 108 Regent Street. It must have been a fashionable establishment, since it boasts of being ‘photographers to HRH The Prince of Wales’.
As I reported before, in December 1867 Britain invaded Ethiopia on the orders of Queen Victoria. The aim was to put an end to Emperor Tewodros II, who had taken hostage a missionary and diplomats sent to free him. The campaign (which lasted from December 1867 – May 1868) was led by Sir Robert Napier.
The result was a vast punitive expedition, consisting of 13,000 British and Indian troops, reinforced by thousands of transport staff and camp followers, and including 44 trained Indian elephants.
Landing in Eritrea they made their way slowly through the Ethiopian highlands.
Finally they confronted the Emperor’s army at the fortress of Magdala, where the hostages were being held.
His forces defeated, Emperor Tewodros committed suicide rather than face the ignominy of imprisonment, with a pistol originally given him by Queen Victoria.
The young prince was taken to Britain, under the care of Captain Tristram Speedy an army officer with a knowledge of Ethiopia.
While staying at Speedy’s home on the Isle of Wight he was introduced to Queen Victoria at her home at Osborne House. She took a great interest in his life and education.
Alamayehu spent some time in India with Speedy and his wife, but the government decided he should be educated in England and he was sent to moved to Rugby School in 1875.
In 1878 he joined the officers’ training school at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, but he was not happy there and the following year went to Leeds, West Yorkshire, to stay with his old tutor Cyril Ransome. Within a week he had contracted pleurisy and died after six weeks of illness, despite the best efforts of a number of doctors.
Queen Victoria mentioned the death of the young prince in her diary, saying what a good and kind boy he had been and how sad it was that he should die so far from his family. She also mentioned how very unhappy the prince had been, and how conscious he was of people staring at him because of his colour.
Queen Victoria arranged for Alamayehu to be buried at Windsor Castle. The funeral took place on 21 November 1879, in the presence of Cyril Ransome, General Napier, and Captain Speedy. A brass plaque in the nave of St George’s chapel commemorates him and bears the words “I was a stranger and ye took me in”, but Alamayehu’s body is buried in a brick vault outside the chapel. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia arranged for second plaque commemorating the Prince to be placed in the chapel as well.
In 2007, the Ethiopian government requested the return of Alemayehu’s remains for reburial in Ethiopia.
President Girma Wolde-Giorgis, with the support of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, wrote to the Queen, asking for this to take place. In her response the Queen said that the prince’s remains had first been the chapel, then re-buried in the precinct of the chapel, along with nine others. Deciding to whom the individual the bones belonged to would be very difficult.
Richard Pankhurst, the well-known Ethiopianist, pointed out that the hair of Emperor Tewodros was in the British Army Museum, so it should be possible to find sufficient DNA to decide the matter. The Ethiopian government is willing to pay for the tests – despite the Prince being effectively a former Prisoner of War, but so far there has been no resolution of the issue.
As a result the remains of Prince Alemayehu lie in the ground in Britain, rather than in his homeland – Ethiopia.
The British Fleet off the Eritrean Coast
This is a photograph from the National Archive collection in London contains images of preparations for the battle of Magdala. This is a summary of the Wikimedia story about this extraordinary campaign. You can see more here.